A Summer to Remember – in Ethiopia

A Summer to Remember – in Ethiopia.

We spent much of the summer in the UK and felt very lucky to be able to pull in volunteering at the Olympics as well as here in Ethiopia.  Before leaving I got myself an Ethiopian flag, waved it in the office  and set off  to support the Ethiopian athletes as well as the Brits.

Ethiopia ended up pleased with the women’s team but a bit disappointed with the men’s results, with a total of 7 medals in all. The women pulled in 3 golds – the 5,000m, 10,000m, and the Marathon. The men’s party was spoiled by Mo Farah who pipped them to silver in the 5,000m and bronze in the 10,000m. They also picked up a silver in the Paralympics. All medals were track events – it figures that one of the poorest countries in the world isn’t able to compete in events with fancy kit like bikes, horses, boats and other equipment. Running is what they do well.

Then during August Ethiopia had news which rocked the country: the death of their 57 year old Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. His funeral took place 3 days before my return.  Although his death was a shock to us, it wasn’t really a surprise. He’d appeared on TV for at least 2 hours a day every day until a couple of weeks before we left mid-July. The Ethiopian people feel that is the norm for a Prime Minister.  Suddenly he wasn’t there.

When I last saw him on TV I was struck by his appearance, it had changed. He looked unwell. However, his sudden disappearance from public view was provided with little explanation. The Ethiopians were outraged when they learnt he was ill through a foreigner. A delegate at the African summit in Addis in late June publicly regretted Meles’ absence through ill-health, but Ethiopia said little. Various theories started to appear in the global press, but still nothing official from Ethiopia.

On August 20th his death in a Belgian hospital was announced, leaving the country in shock and stricken with grief. No official cause of death has been provided. The shock continues and the respect and admiration for him reign.

Meles had been in charge since the overthrow of the Derg 20 years ago. He joined the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) and was the youngest member of the committee from early on.  Many of the people I work with were part of the same group and fought alongside him.  A dominating feature of Mekelle is the memorial to this victorious group along with the associated museum telling the TPLF story.

Observations – what we’ve seen and heard:

  • Even before I had gone through passport control I was greeted by home-made posters praising his outstanding leadership, with promises to continue what he set about.
  •  Pictures scroll through on screens in the airport lounges and everywhere – shop windows, offices, wherever you look there are posters of regret and promises to pursue his vision.
  • Before his death, some were starting to feel change was due and that the Government’s tight hold had been too controlling for too long. Some people were quietly making plans to leave Government positions to give themselves more freedom. Many no longer feel that.
  • People now want to hang on to the certainty of their lives and stability. It’s not the time to experiment with change. Ethiopia is a country of huge diversity. It has been a skilled group who has held the various nations with their 80 languages together for the past 21 years.

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A fellow VSO, who lives nearby – 60 miles but 4 hours away –was here during the summer and records how it was in his small town.

“Letter from Ethiopia…………….Meles


We are wrapped in sadness. Pairs stand on the tracks and beside the road talking quietly with heads bowed or staring into the distance as they listen. There are people crying. At the small church on the slope, the one with the tin roof and the wind chimes, the loudspeaker gives out its message. In the shade against the church wall there are men standing, hunched, their foreheads touching the church wall. There are more people crouched in the low bushes around the church, their heads are covered with their shawls. They make no movement as we go by.

The Prime Minister is dead. Meles had been Prime Minister for 20 years. We are told he has been ill for some time, and eventually was taken to Belgium for treatment but he died. The people we talk to have no real detail and are not very sure. The only surety is the sadness and uncertainty of how they feel, and how often the tears start. The TV is state controlled and there is a rolling slide show of stills from Meles life, accompanied by flute music which is very appropriate but extremely mournful. As outsiders we don’t know the man at all, but as the days progress knowledge is gathered . The memorial programmes repeat and repeat. Information we miss on one small TV in a cafe is gathered on the larger TV in a bar. We had seen him as a bald, 50+ politician with a grey goatee and glasses. Now we know that when younger he had a wispy black beard, lots of sticking out black curly hair, and a nice smile. Nice smiles are common in Ethiopia. The teeth are good.

Apparently Meles was a freedom fighter at the time of independence against the socialist regime known as the D’erg. This was about 20 years ago and there are old pictures of him in dirty clothes, running across battlefields with a machine gun, or firing into the distance. Later on, a few days after his death, there is a slide show with an English commentary, and we are told he is married to a freedom fighter, and has three children. It seems he lived about 2 hours to the north of us in a place called Adwa, and started university there, studying to become a doctor.  He never finished that course. The independence war took over and he only achieved his academic ambitions much later when, while ruling the country , he studied for a degree with the Open University. Here a small point. We have seen him on TV, in the news talking in parliament or at summits. Language is a barrier of course. Yet he did not talk like many western politicians. You know, that arm waving, finger wagging, staged point making style. His body language was relaxed, even, easy, avuncular, calm. Like a sure patriarch or family leader talking to his children. Maybe that is why they are crying.

There are TV images of the large crowds, some milling around, some organised, which are gathering in all the major cities of the country. There are daytime gatherings in stadiums and public squares, women’s processions as they do the wailing and loud crying, and dark time candle lit processions through the streets. The TV shows the emotional reaction to the body’s arrival in Addis Ababa. We are in the lodge watching on their big TV. They show the interviews with members of the crowd, crying and saying their words of farewell. In the lodge there are several tables with small groups of men, watching as we are. There are tears there as well.

On the Friday before the funeral Abi Adi is a ghost town. There is a small commemoration march in the late morning, and the women’s celebration called Ashenda, which is like a dancing trick or treat with groups twirling round the houses collecting money, is cancelled. The mobile and the internet network have been off for days. The cafes show endless repeats of processions and commemoration speeches. We stay in on Sunday until the late afternoon, and then find the lodge TV to watch the transmission of the funeral in Addis Ababa with all its state pomp. As we watch we talk about the worries for the future with a deputy Prime Minister promoted to authority, and the announced plans for an election in 2015. There is already talk of how the minorities in each region will react. Stability or dissent. A choice of effective federalism or tribally based and religious separatism.”

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